Juukan Tears

wip, February 2021

In May of 2020 mining company Rio Tinto destroyed the Juukan Shelters, containing sacred caves that had been in use by the traditional custodians of that part of (what we now call) Western Australia, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples, for over 46,000 years. The Shelters were in the remote Pilbara region of WA, and were located within the Brockman 4 mine, one among Rio Tinto’s 16 iron ore mines in the region. The PKKP had registered their objections to the extension of the mine into the area of the Juukan Shelters for several years, but owing to an outdated WA Government permit system that allows for no objections once a mining permit is issued, and an unequal and paternalistic mining rights negotiation process that effectively gags First Nation recipients of mining money, their cries went unheeded.

Since then the blast has received significant public outcry and media attention in Australia and been subject to a government inquiry, not least because recent archaeological excavations had found ancient human hair, proving continual human use of the shelters for 46,000 years.

Western Australia is home to Rio Tinto Iron Ore, and its capital, Perth, the city where I live, boasts the Rio Tinto office tower (also known as Central Park) as its tallest building. In a relatively small and topographically flat city it is visible from many kilometers away, including from my house – and my studio space – in North Perth.

My response to the shameful destruction of sacred sites and continued silencing of our First Nations people, (not to mention the over representation of environmental abusers like Rio Tinto in the skyline of Perth), is this work, with the working title Juukan Tears. It is a piece in two sections, the largest a wall hanging approximately 4m (13′) tall by 1.3m (4.3′) wide, the second section being a group 46 chains that are each approximately 1.8m long. It is made out of recycled custom orb, a common fencing and building material made from galvinised steel, which was previously the siding and roofing material of my back shed. (Image at this post.)

The first and larger part of the work contains a rendering of the Rio Tinto headquarters in Perth, with line-work “drawn” in different amalgamations of teardrop shapes. The second piece makes use of the 4,600 teardrop shapes, representing 10% of the 46,000 years of history lost when the Juukan Shelters were destroyed last May, to make chains of tears. Groups of 100 teardrops are joined to make 46 chains that will be hung next to the drawing, which combined makes approximately 80m (260′) of chain.

The drawing, or wall hanging, is itself also cut into 382 rectangular forms, to represent all of the holes drilled into the Juukan Shelters on the Brockman 4 mine site before the “Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura¬†Traditional Owners were made aware of the planned blast on May 15.” Within the background, using length and order of these 382 pieces, is depicted a message in a modified version of Morse Code. When decoded it reads: “46,000 year old Juukan shelters destroyed for…iron ore”

As mentioned previously, this work will debut at the John Curtin Gallery at Curtin University for the Indian Ocean Triennial Australia – IOTA21 – in September 2021.

I am grateful to the Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries in Western Australia for their financial support of this project, and to the IOTA and John Curtin Gallery curatorial teams for their support of this work and my greater practice.